A book review by Walter Russell Mead
That Sweet Enemy: The French and the British From the Sun King to the Present, Robert Tombs and Isabelle Tombs: Knopf, 2007, 816 pp.
Why read a long book on Anglo-French relations? Whatever the United Kingdom and France may have been in the past, they are secondary powers today — character actors rather than protagonists on the stage of world history. And good arguments can be made that even the limited prominence in world affairs that the two countries currently enjoy is transient. The failure of the European Union to thus far develop an effective single foreign policy gives Paris and London and their relationship more prominence than they will have when (or if) the Europeans begin to speak with one voice. With the Soviets gone, the Europeans disunited, and China and India still at a relatively early point on the road to world power, the United Kingdom and France today look more important than they really are and are likely to be in the future.
So is the writing and the reading of That Sweet Enemy, however delicious and well researched the book is, more of an indulgence than a serious project?
Instead of reading about foppishly Anglophile eighteenth-century French aristocrats or about bad nineteenth-century English cuisine, should we not be reading about coal production in China, labor-market reforms in India, and bureaucratic progress, or the lack of it, in Brussels today?
The answer is no. While it is true that the long-term absolute decline of both the United Kingdom and France as world powers is unlikely to end, their past still shapes the world today.
The Anglo-French relationship — or, more fully, the relationship between France and the leading Anglophone powers of the last three centuries — remains an essential subject for the serious student of world affairs. During those three centuries, the Anglophones, or, as the French still say, the Anglo-Saxon powers, have built successive global hegemonies based on the principles of economic liberalism. France unsuccessfully vied for global power against the British from the accession of William III to the English throne, in 1689, to Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, in 1815. Since then, the French have sought to defend their interests, identity, culture, and economic values in an Anglo-Saxon world of economic liberalism and accelerating globalization.
The interplay between these two societies has done more to shape the geopolitics, economics, and culture of the world today than the relationship between any other two societies on the face of the earth. It is not just that the United States is presently managing (or mismanaging) a world order closely related to the one that the British built during the so-called Second Hundred Years War with France, from 1688 to 1815. It is not just that the proponents of anti-Americanism and antiliberalism today still employ a vocabulary and a set of ideas first developed by the French opponents of Anglo-Saxon power centuries ago. It is that the two forces that continue to dominate the world — the expansion of an international political and economic order based on the power of the English-speaking world and the complex processes of adaptation, imitation, resistance, and cooperation through which the rest of the world seeks to cope with and profit from that order — are so deeply rooted in the Anglo-French dynamic. Understanding the history of that dynamic provides a deep understanding of contemporary world politics.
Ideally, this book should be read along with The American Enemy: the History of French Anti-Americanism, Philippe Roger’s striking history of over two centuries of anti-American discourse in France. As the Tombses point out, Anglophobia and anti-Americanism are deeply linked, nowhere more so than in France. This is not simply a matter of “WASPophobia,” an excessive fear of the Anglo-Saxon world; the whole complicated mix of French attitudes toward the Anglo-Saxon world has long focused on the elements that unite British and U.S. politics, culture, and international ambitions. The Tombses do touch on how the French criticize the United States today using some of the same categories and ideas they developed during their competition with the United Kingdom.
But a more systematic account of the relationship between French Anglophobia and anti-Americanism remains unexplored. Between them, That Sweet Enemy and The American Enemy outline an important book that has not yet been written: a thorough examination of the French response throughout history to the developing Anglo-Saxon world order. Such a book would look at the simultaneous currents of WASPophobia and WASPophilia that ran through France; at the ways in which French economic, political, and cultural developments were shaped by the need to keep up with the Joneses in the Anglophone world; and at how the French made a relatively comfortable adjustment to a world that so signally disappointed their hopes.
The Tombses would be well qualified to take on this project: he is a well-known British historian; she is French by birth and holds degrees from both British and French universities. They are married and hold dual British and French citizenship. Between them, they combine a rare breadth and depth of historical knowledge with an even rarer ability to find and select the telling anecdote or illustration that illuminates a key point.
But until they broaden their focus from the couple infernal of John Bull and Marianne to a ménage à trois that includes Uncle Sam, That Sweet Enemy will have to suffice as an extraordinary introduction to the foundations of the world in which we live.
Much of what readers may think they know about the Anglo-French relationship turns out to be wrong. English food, for example, has not perennially been considered a disaster by the French. In the eighteenth century, English country-house food was often considered as good as what the French ate, and French verdicts on English food were much more mixed than they would later become. There are even signs of English influence on French cuisine. What no less an authority than Roland Barthes has described as “the alimentary sign of Frenchness,” le steack-frites, was brought to Paris by Wellington‘s victorious army. “French fries” could in fact be called “freedom fries” without committing violence to the historical record. The founder of modern Parisian couture, who also popularized the term “chic” and was largely responsible for the establishment of Paris as the center of the world’s fashion industry, was Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman.
The United Kingdom was less repressed and France was less sexually tolerant than people in both countries have assumed. Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine fled to London when their sexual relationship along with their political views made it advisable to decamp from Paris; Rimbaud, for one, thought that British debauchery made Paris look provincial.
Before the French Revolution, the French were astonished by the egalitarianism of British life; one bemused French observer wrote about frequently seeing “milords” and “artisans” amiably chatting about politics at tavern tables.
The two countries have also had an immense influence on each other. It was in the face of French power that the United Kingdom introduced the system of funded national debt known as Dutch finance in the late seventeenth century and forged a durable consensus around the political settlement of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89.
Similarly, the French have the British to thank for their revolution; the fiscal crisis that forced Louis XVI to convene the States-General in 1789 was due to French participation in the American Revolution. The popularity today of deconstructionism and other fancy forms of French thought is only the latest episode in the long-running flow of ideas over the English Channel. Voltaire brought the ideas of the British Enlightenment to France, and French politicians and financiers continually looked to the United Kingdom for inspiration.
Meanwhile, generations of British writers and artists found Paris to be their muse. Matthew Arnold was proudly Francophile, and novelists and poets such as George Eliot and William Butler Yeats were profoundly influenced by French literature.
When Virginia Woolf famously wrote that “On or about December 1910 human character changed,” she was referring to the effects of the opening of a show of postimpressionist French art in London arranged by the British painter Roger Fry. (The Tombses cannot resist marveling at the “odd mixture of cosmopolitanism and insularity” behind this remark.)
National stereotypes loom large in the book — and in the minds of the citizens of both countries. For centuries, the French have tended to see the United Kingdom as “culturally detached, eccentric, unpolished and therefore the origin of the new and unusual — often amusing, always disturbing.” For an equally long period, the British have seen the French as “highly civilized, the hallmark of sophisticated taste and manners whether in dress, food or art.”
The French have long felt that Englishmen do not like women, are bored or frightened in their presence, and turn to drink as a substitute for female company. They suspect that the custom of educating British boys in single-sex public schools has something to do with this and find a certain sadism in various aspects of British life (boxing, fox hunting, and, in past centuries, cock fighting) that hints at darker vices.
The British have felt that Frenchmen like women too much, or in the wrong way, and believe that the French are constantly involved in extramarital affairs. The Englishman is a boor, the Frenchman a fop. Since the eighteenth century, the British have traveled to France for pleasure, and the French have come to the United Kingdom to learn or make money.
This pattern persists today: the French are coming to London in record numbers to study and start careers, and the British are buying ever more second homes in the French countryside. The antagonism between the two countries has also persisted, although today poll results indicate that the French dislike the British more than the latter do the former.
The durability of these stereotypes and these neighbors’ persistent dislike for each other should discourage globalization enthusiasts who believe that closer communication will lead to better global understanding and harmony. The French and the British have been in more or less instantaneous communication since the first cable and telegraph wire connected Paris and London in 1850. It does not seem to have helped.
That Sweet Enemy is also a book about historical memory. If the United Kingdom and the United States are two countries divided by a common language, France and the United Kingdom are two countries divided by a common history.
Each national culture has built its own version of the past, and the French and the British have chosen different moments in their common history to remember and forget. Unsurprisingly, the British attack on the French fleet at Mers el-Kébir in 1940, following France’s surrender to Germany, is a larger part of the French national memory than of the United Kingdom’s.
The confrontation at Fashoda in 1898, where British colonial forces stopped the French attempt to establish a presence on the Upper Nile, is almost forgotten in London but still rankles on the other side of La Manche. Going further back, the British remember Agincourt, the French Joan of Arc. The British remember General James Wolfe’s triumph over the Marquis de Montcalm at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, in 1759; the French remember “le grand dérangement,” the forced deportation of thousands of French-speaking Acadians from what is now Nova Scotia.
The British remember the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 as a triumph; many French speakers remember it as yet another case of perfidious Albion’s willingness to leave France to face the German enemy on its own and, like Cleopatra at Actium, to desert her ally and sail away on her ships at the first sign of trouble.
Up until World War II, the United Kingdom could largely view its modern history as a success story. France not only had to face a long history of thwarted ambitions and military defeat; it had to live with the consequences in a world that was increasingly shaped by the preferences and policies of the hated British rival. Even when both countries faded into the second rank of great powers after World War II, this situation persisted. The United States’ emergence as a world leader was much easier for the British to accept than for the French; the United States’ rise was simply another episode in the long saga of Anglo-Saxon power.
The most glaring omission in That Sweet Enemy is the book’s relative neglect of the role of finance in Anglo-French relations, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Tombses are alive to the importance of the Bank of England and the United Kingdom’s financial superiority in its Second Hundred Years War with France. But the subject of finance as a major force shaping the fates of the two countries largely disappears from their account after the Battle of Waterloo.
In fact, whereas France, reluctantly and with many a nostalgic glance backward, gave up its global political ambitions after Napoleon’s fall, French finance played and continues to play a substantive international role. At times, finance played a direct role in the continuing Anglo-French competition, as it did when British cunning stripped France of the political benefits the latter sought to gain from its investment in the Suez Canal.
At other times, it shaped global realities in ways that profoundly affected British foreign policy: consider the close financial relationship that developed between republican France and tsarist Russia. From 1815 forward, many French politicians and financiers consciously sought to emulate the United Kingdom’s financial infrastructure, and their efforts enjoyed a great degree of success, with cross-channel investment growing significantly.
That Sweet Enemy would offer a fuller picture of the Anglo-French relationship if it further explained the ways in which financial markets and investment decisions helped shape it. And it is unfortunate that a book so rich in observations and apt quotations should omit the striking reports that the young Walter Bagehot, who went on to become the most influential editor (of the The Economist) and constitutional writer in Victorian England, made on his experiences in Paris at the time of Louis-Napoleon‘s seizure of power.
One might also welcome a more complete discussion of the role that the Catholic and Thomistic revivals in France had in shaping Anglican and English Catholic thought from the Oxford movement forward. French figures such as François-René de Chateaubriand and Jean-Baptiste-Henri Lacordaire, in the nineteenth century, and Jacques Maritain, Étienne Gilson, Henri Bergson, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in the twentieth, have been significant influences on British culture and thought.
The stereotypes of an atheistic, worldly France (“More witty than moral the French, I’m afraid,” says the insufferable Mr. Batesby in Charles Williams’ War in Heaven) and a pious United Kingdom have been influential in many ways on both sides of the English Channel, and a deeper examination of them would be useful. More broadly, the story of how these two pioneering capitalist societies handled the relationship between their traditional religious ideologies and the experiences of modernity deserves to be an important focus of a book like this one — which would provide very useful insights for a world facing similar issues today.
But enough carping. This kind of complaint is simply an infelicitous way of asking for an encore. The truth is that no single work and no single (or even dual) author could do full justice to a topic as rich and important as the one the Tombses have chosen.
Good books such as That Sweet Enemy leave readers hungry for more, and critics — with the ill nature endemic to the breed — express this hunger as a critique rather than a compliment. Few books on international relations are as much fun to read as this brilliant description of the last 300 years of Anglo-French relations. Well grounded in the cultural and literary histories of both countries, the Tombses are able to provide a rich and comprehensive account of more than the political relations between Paris and London. Their eye for paradox and aptitude for epigram make the book sparkle. In some places, as when the Tombses compare Émile Zola’s exile in London with Oscar Wilde’s final sojourn in Paris, the pleasure seems almost sinful: Is the reader wasting time engrossed in frivolous gossip rather than studying a serious work about world affairs?
That Sweet Enemy is history as it ought to be: deeply researched, elegantly written, culturally literate, multidisciplinary, coherent, thoughtful, and balanced. It manages to be all these things while also remaining fresh and original, politically engaged but never tendentious.
The Tombses have produced one of the most important and engaging books of the year; readers will find themselves, in the words of the old German saying, “as happy as God in France.”
Reprinted with kindly permission of The Council on Foreign Relations.